“Something didn’t make sense,” Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout Finch tells us, the first words in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” She’s talking about the news reports that “Mr. Bob Ewell died instantly when he fell on his knife.”
But, she asks us, how could this be? How could someone fall on his knife?
As Scout ponders this aloud, Keenan-Bolger makes her bafflement funny and charming and intriguing. It is the beginning of a performance that won her a Tony — and that helped win me over to a production that, on my second viewing this week, nearly nine months after it opened on Broadway, still makes for riveting storytelling.
But Bob Ewell’s knife doesn’t explicitly appear until page 305 in my 323-page edition of Lee’s novel. In the very beginning of his adaptation, then, Sorkin has turned Lee’s story of a young girl’s awakening to the world around her into a kind of detective story – how did Bob Ewell fall onto his knife? — and the young girl into a Nancy Drew.
It is one of the several of Sorkin’s changes that made it impossible for me to see this Broadway version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” as the definitive dramatization of Harper Lee’s novel. (Some of the changes prompted a lawsuit by the late author’s estate, which was settled last May.This made all the more obnoxious producer Scott Rudin’s subsequent bullying of small regional theaters who were using an earlier adaptation.
Almost right away, Sorkin’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” becomes a courtroom drama: Scout’s father Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) is enlisted to defend an innocent black man, Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) accused of raping a white woman, Bob Ewell’s daughter Mayella (Erin Wilhelmi.)The play turns the three children who are at the center of the book into theatrically-inclined adult narrators of the trial. (“He had no way of knowing,” Scout says of Ewell as he takes his seat in the courthouse, “that 22 days from now he’d be dead.”)
Above all, Aaron Sorkin is using Harper Lee’s story to ask his own question, one with special resonance these days: How can one be decent in an indecent world? Or even:Can one be decent in an indecent world?
Atticus Finch’s “decency” at the start is indistinguishable from naïveté. He just doesn’t believe that the good people of Maycomb, Alabama will wind up “sending an innocent man to his death.” Atticus admonishes his children Scout and Jem (Will Pullen), and their odd summer friend Dill (Gideon Glick) to treat everybody with respect, from the nasty neighbor Mrs. Henry DuBose (Phyllis Somerville) to Bob Ewell himself (Frederick Weller), an unredeemable violent racist and child abuser who threatens Atticus and his children.
As in the 1960 book and the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck, Atticus gives everybody the benefit of the doubt. “You never really understand a person, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
But, unlike the book and the movie, this is not treated as the unvarnished truth. In the play, it is Capurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), the Finch family cook and nanny, who is wise to the world, in a way that Atticus is not. Although it feels a little anachronistic for the setting – Alabama in 1934 – this black woman even calls her employer on his relative cluelessness, with mockery, passive-aggressiveness and outright anger.
“I believe in being respectful,” Atticus declares, defensively.
“No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it,” Calpurnia snaps back.
In recounting the negotiations with the estate in an article in New York Magazine, , Sorkin was clear that the changes he saw as most crucial for his take on the story were to the two black characters – Calpurnia and Tom Robinson. Even though Tom’s life hangs in the balance, he isn’t heard from directly until about halfway through both the 1960 novel and the 1962 movie. The first time we actually heard from Tom then was after a lynch mob is driven from the jail where he is waiting to stand trial: “Mr. Finch? They gone?”
In the play, Sorkin has added an earlier scene, with Atticus visiting Tom in jail, asking to represent him, and telling him to take the case to trial. This Tom is less grateful than skeptical. ‘I was guilty as soon as I was accused,'” Tom says. But Atticus convinces him not to take a plea that will spare his life. In retrospect, was this good advice – was Atticus being a competent attorney, given the time and place?
By the end, Atticus is shown to have grown wiser – which, one could say, more cynical…and so has Scout, redefining what it means to be “the most honest and decent man in Maycomb.”
Ultimately, on reflection, I’m not sure all of the changes make sense for the story that Harper Lee wanted to tell, even as they call to us now.
Luckily, while at the Shubert Theater, there is little incentive to reflect. The story Sorkin wants to tell – or, more to the point, the way he tells it to us – holds our attention, enhanced by a production that is even more engaging the second time around. The acting has stayed fresh and affecting. Bartlett Sher’s direction is as fluid as Miriam Buether’s set design, in which a porch, a jailhouse or a courtroom smoothly glide into place piece by piece from above and below and the sides.
Adam Guettel’s music sets the right mood from the get-go, when the guitarist and the organist take their place on either side of the stage in front of a curtain that looks like the side of a barn.
The story’s emphasis and framing differ from the book and the movie. Some of the scenes are either missing (Atticus shooting the rabid dog) or awkwardly staged (the assault on Scout in her ham costume.) But there is enough wit and tenderness here for a satisfying evening of theater. And those who prefer the book or the movie, can always return to them; they haven’t disappeared.
To Kill A Mockingbird
Written by Aaron Sorkin; Directed by Bartlett Sher
Cast: Jeff Daniels (through 11/3), Ed Harris (starting 11/5), Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick, Frederick Weller, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Dakin Matthews, Erin Wilhelmi, Danny McCarthy, Neal Huff, Phyllis Somerville, Liv Rooth, Danny Wolohan and LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission.